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Column: PBS show tackles retirement issues

The road to retirement can develop some serious potholes along the way. That's the hard-earned life lesson three Tampa Bay residents contributed to a documentary that airs nationally on public broadcasting stations the next two Monday nights.

Retirement Revolution is an ambitious program by WTTW National Productions in Chicago. Split into two one-hour segments, the show features Paula Zahn as anchor, sound bites from a head-spinning medley of 31 retirement experts and a selection of retirees and workers coping with financial realities.

Carol Sheppard of St. Petersburg and Robert and Rhonda Kamphey of Palm Harbor share some real-life woes with viewers. Sheppard, a legal secretary, says she's 50 years old, makes $40,000 a year and has no retirement savings. She cashed out her modest 401(k) savings plan a few years back and has been through bankruptcy.

"I don't want to eat dog food," she says in the program. "I don't want to end up that way."

Sheppard learned about the TV production from a posting on Craigslist and said she decided to participate to present the nonsaver's side of the issue.

"I come across as a not very smart person," she told me. "I just don't know how to manage money. That's really the bottom line. I barely can pay my bills. I got a car that I can't afford because I wanted it. That keeps me under right now. I don't have any savings and I don't have any plans for savings."

Then there are the Kampheys, who are in Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings and are hoping to get a plan approved to make payments to their creditors. They said their finances went downhill with their Clearwater business, Superior Mold Inc. They wanted to save their home, they said, but they couldn't communicate with their mortgage lender.

Most of those featured in the documentary have considerably happier stories, including a group of fit and vocal retirees at the Village on the Isle retirement community in Venice.

A financial planner works with one middle-aged couple in the show, concluding, much to their relief, that they probably can afford to retire if they keep up their savings efforts.

The program offers a sweeping overview of retirement, going back to the days before Social Security when the elderly relied on their relatives for care when they could no longer work or, if they had none, "poorhouses" that took in the destitute.

Yale historian Jennifer Klein talks about how Social Security created a middle class of elderly and makes you feel grateful that it did. If you aren't worried about the future viability of Social Security and Medicare, you probably should be after watching this.

The individual advice offered is on target but superficial as the program tries to cover far too many subjects, hopscotching through complicated topics like reverse mortgages, long-term care, annuities and the taxation of retirement plan distributions. Viewers who don't understand these are likely to be left more confused than enlightened.

The program's underlying message is much simpler:

• Save money. It's never too late to start.

• Work longer. You might even like it.

• Retirement will be here before you know it and you'd better be ready.

"It was an eye opener," Sheppard said. "I realized that I needed to get my situation under control pretty soon."


'Retirement Revolution'

TV: Airs at 10 p.m. Monday and April 7 on many PBS stations, including WEDU in Tampa Bay.


Column: PBS show tackles retirement issues 03/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 11:26am]
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